A Day in the Life of a Cager — Pekan Shu
Mr. Shu, groundskeeper of the Gatehouse, is our second subject. This is his story, that of a Bleaker who cares.
Prologue, an hour before antipeak
Well, good evening I suppose. I’m Pekan Shu, and tomorrow is my day, which I’m told is being recorded for a mimir of some sort… but whatever it’s for isn’t the point. The point is, it’s my day. I’m the groundskeeper here at the Gatehouse, and the following recordings are all about what I deal with all day here at my job. It’s not all that interesting, but for nine stingers and a few rose bulbs from Mt. Celestia, why not? Well, I’m just about to go to sleep, and I’m not quite awake enough to tell you about me and what I do as a groundskeeper. I’m sleeping now, I’ll tell be telling my story in the morning.
Six Hours before Peak
Being that my living quarters are in the back of the Gatehouse, in the Garden, and not inside the actual place, I get quite a better bit of sleep than the rest that sleep inside. I don’t have to listen to barmies howling all night, but I make up for that in the day. My ears rattle with their screams and rantings more in the daylight hours than most other members of the Cabal combined. My job consists of, basically enough, taking care of the Gatehouse. I’m the janitor and gardener around here. I also see to cleaning up messes and whatnot in the cafeteria, and I overlook several soup kitchens in the area. You might say I’m high up, but that’d be an overstatement… I may do a lot, but none of it is really all that important in the grand scheme of things, just in my scheme of things. You’ll have a better look at me and my job as the day passes, you can be sure of that.
Well, I just woke up and spouted a bunch of gibberish about my job and completely ignored me myself. I’m a Githzerai male, five feet and eleven inches, and most folks say I’m skinny. Right now, I have the look of sleep in my eyes, but that’s because I just woke up. See, the Gatehouse is like a prison in some respects, one of them being that there’s a specific lights-out time, and the other being a specific wake-up time. I’m usually tired-looking because I stay up past bedtime and wake up before wake-up time. I’m what most folks call obsessive compulsive, when I start something (or have the urge to do something), I can’t stop until it’s done. As well, I usually wear a stiff, grey jacket with several pockets that I keep various tools in, a pair of overalls with the knees completely worn out from gardening, and my steel toed boots.
Now that I’m all dressed up and you have a decent idea of what you’re listening too, I suppose it’s time for me to go and do my job. Of course, breakfast always comes first though.
Five and a Quarter Hours before Peak
The Cafeteria is a loud building that sits outside the Gatehouse on Bedlam Run where all the sane (a word which I use loosely) Bleakers and orphans come to eat breakfast. Manned by the Cabal for the Cabal you might say. Anyway, they serve up a lousy bit of porridge, compared to some stuff from the other kitchens, but it is something to eat, and it’s free. Walking in, a body is assaulted by both the awful noise of barmies and hungry children and cafeteria workers mixed with the rank smell of the masses… although Sigil itself don’t smell all that peachy anyway.
The place does affect my job a bit too… I hear about different things that need to be done around Sigil, especially the Hive, in the name of Factol Lhar and the Cabal. For example, the following conversation I just had, which details where I’m heading after I finish this recording:
“‘Ello there, Mr. Shu. How many diseases will you be curing today?” Mrs. Hicks is a sarcastic old lady who runs the cafeteria. She overseas the making of their cardboard sandwiches and stone soup, and is the main reason why most of the younger orphans visit the other kitchens. Other than her devilish attitude though, she is a very caring woman, and must’ve saved hundreds in her lifetime, in various ways.
“None scheduled, Mrs. Hicks, it’s still pretty early in the morning you know.” It’s best not to be sarcastic back, the woman hates being the target of jokes and has been known to ban people from her kitchen for weeks.
“Well then sir, if you really aren’t all that busy, there’s a houseful of babies down in the Marble District that haven’t eaten in days. Chant is the place was an orphanage before it’s owners up an’ left all the kids there to die.” A woman who talks to hundreds of kids and Bleakers every morning picks this stuff up… she knows everything that goes on between the Gatehouse and the Foundry before anyone else, except, of coarse, her informants.
“Righto… I’ll definitely have a look up there. Thank you, and may the Lady’s Grace fall upon you and those children.”
I don’t come so much for the food in the morning, being that the stuff they feed hear serves no purpose but to keep the stomach from growling, but to see what I’m up against, or rather, what we’re up against. The cafeteria is the biggest early morning collection of starving derelicts in all of Sigil, and seeing it morning after morning is quite a wake up call to what we live in. I’m quite sane, and have a good enough head on my shoulders. I accept the fact that there are starving and dying people out there, and part of my philosophy as a member of the Cabal is to stay sane so as to better be able to help the poor sods… which is what I have to do now that Old Lady Hicks told me where to find them.
Four Hours before Peak
In Sigil there are orphanages, and there’s the Gatehouse. A Cager orphanage is basically a legalised labour camp, an out of business orphanage is a bunch of kids left to fend for themselves after their slave drivers ran away with their money. They’re quite sad sites too… the look of starvation on a child’s face is an unmistakable and an unforgettable one. What I saw just now was shocking in both respects.
I brought two others with me to investigate this orphanage in the Marble District, and when we got there, we were sickened to see half eaten little children lying dead with the rats. The paint on the walls was pealing as though it was drenched with some sort of alcohol recently, and the smashed glass riddled about the floor suggested someone throwing bottles. It also reeked of opium. Suffice to say that the sight was unnerving, so much so that I won’t describe it in any more detail here. There was only one still alive, a little half-elven babe of no more than two years. He was sitting on top of a table crying, trying to stay out of reach of the rats, watching what looked like his brothers and sisters get eaten. Phebe, one of the other Bleakers I brought, started crying uncontrollably and ran off, while Mal, the other, just stood there dumbly. I told him to go get an exterminator, a clique of Dustmen, and some food, as well as lots of water… the place was beginning to reek of death—amongst other things—and needed to be washed down.
When they all (except for Phebe) got back some fifteen minutes later, they collected a total of seven bodies… all half-elves or humans, and took the remaining survivor out of the place back to the Gatehouse. He was suffering from malnourishment and his blood wasn’t clotting properly, he’ll probably die too. It turns out the parents or guardians or whatever didn’t leave either. I found one lying slumped in a chair with a knife in his chest in a back room, the other all skin and bone with an opium pipe lying on the floor near her. She looked like she smoked herself to death, and her husband probably had a head full himself when he stabbed himself. Poor kids… powers know most of them had a bit of it in their blood too when they were born. What a bloody disgusting city we live in…
Three and three Quarter Hours before Peak
“A bloody disgusting place indeed. In all the long years of suffering and hardship and barminess I’ve witnessed and myself endured, I can’t grow cold hearted to the site of dead children, or dead anyone for that matter. Everyday I see such things, sometimes even worse, but I can never harden myself to it… and one day, it’ll claim me, and I’ll join my fellows in the Bleaker’s Wing. To think of the filth and muck we live in from day to day, and there are those who would turn their cheeks to it, and live in splendour swimming in their jink just down the street. That’s why this city is disgusting, because the people don’t care. The Takers collect their taxes, the Guvners crush them with their laws, the Hardheads arrest them, the Red Death kill them, and yet no one cares. And they call us the Bleak Cabal, the sods who don’t care about anything and walk around melancholy and holing ourselves up in our own madhouses. If they lived like this and saw this they’d be barmy too… not that I wish my life on anyone, the powers know that those who weren’t fated to be a madman shouldn’t suffer madness. But that also doesn’t mean they shouldn’t help, in any way possible.
“Take a walk through the Lady’s or Clerks Wards, and look at the High Houses, made all of gold and big enough to hold and feed scores of people. Then look at the few who live there, and the masses who congregate around the doorsteps trying to scrape together the jink for a meal. Not that I pity the poor, they can help themselves well enough—and those smart enough do in any way possible—but the high-ups should feel slightly obligated to help.”
That’s part of a speech former Factol Tollysalmon made a bit before she went barmy. I think it characterises some of us, but then again, no one really knows exactly when she went barmy. I thought it sort of applied to the situation…. I know it applies to mine.
Three Hours before Peak
Back in the relative quiet of the Gardens I get to go about the more peaceful part of my job. I plant flowers. And I do a bit of thinking too, you see. It’s a tricky job sometimes, thinking. Especially in this city, where there’s always a distraction of some sort, and especially with my job, where there’s really always a distraction of some sort. Either way, I enjoy my flowers… they’re a good escape mechanism of sorts, even though thinking is, in my case, almost dangerous.
Plucking out the weeds is like my own personal cell in the madhouse, because it gets me thinking about my job and my life. I think, for every sod I help out of a puddle of vomit or for every child I save from starvation, there’s always those other five across town that we just don’t get to in time. We save the kid sitting on the table crying, but we never make it to the poor six others crawling on the floor. It makes me wonder whether we—whether I—make a difference. Sure, the grounds are nicer for my efforts, but are the people? Do more people care because I do? Am I actually saving lives by helping the kid on the table, the drunken sod in his vomit? These are the questions I ask myself everyday caring for the morning glories, trying to keep the razorvine from consuming them… because I know that when I leave, the razorvine will take over. Does that mean the rats’ll eat that one more kid too?
My madness isn’t in uncaring, as you can see. As someone once said, “we’re all a little mad”. I get introspective, and bother myself with these concerns. All Bleakers are introspective to a degree I believe, our beloved factols especially, and I believe the question of whether or not we make a difference is one of the driving forces of our sad barminess… especially mine.
“The daffodils look lovely today”, wrote a prime songwriter a few years back. If she means look at now and live for now and make the difference for now and don’t worry about after death, that’s all fine… but I never understood that song, I’m just a gardener, that’s why I remembered it. Daffodils and morning glories and roses all line the gardens. Big circles of colour around the trees, and even a big floral clock in the middle – it keeps some barmies busy for days, it does. The flowers are something like the beauty in the heart of true madness… just look at this place I work. Barmies everywhere, but the flowers are still pretty.
Two and a Half Hours before Peak
While I was working the gardens, a lad called Milton walked up to me and says, “Mr. Shu, I’m afraid the Bleaker taking old Mr. Pickling his food this morning strayed a bit too close to the bars on one of the ol’ cells. You know how it is, with cannibals and whatnot—bunch o’ savages in this town, I say. Anyhow, you got drafted to take him his food.”
“You take it.”
“I’m afraid I’m busy, what with…”
“You’re afraid is what.”
“That’s not all that bloody possible, being afraid of a barmy, but I might have a bit o’ the jitters. Folks don’t get eaten most everyday, you know, it shook me up a bit. Besides, you’re a professional and you know what cells to dodge and so forth. Besides, ‘being introverted out in the Gardens isn’t good for you,’ or so I’m told, ‘you get barmy when you think.'” More quotes from the barmy Tollysalmon, and he was right… sitting out here in the peace does make you barmy. You need to keep a good head on your shoulders when you’re inside, you can wander as you please out here.
“Fine. You can go out to the Cold Bowl and help stock up for lunch, I’ll be there in a few hours.”
With that, Milton gave me a look and walked off a bit sullenly, typical new recruit, probably a prime. No new Bleaker even knows who Tollysalmon is… he must have studied up before he joined, probably thought he’d have some weight behind him that way, but then again, who knows. Seniority always wins, in any case, just like fate, but for the win, I have to bring an illithid—and a barmy one at that—his breakfast.
One and Three Quarter Hours before Peak
I walked down a hall in the Irretrievably Insane ward… Tkptch Pickling, of all the barmy sods to leave hungry. Mr. Pickling, as we called him—not only did he prefer to be addressed this way, but not many folks can pronounce Tkptch—was a barmy illithid who was holed in a large cell up at the end of the hall. His room was lined with lead and was magically warded… he once psionically blasted 14 nearby folks to death. He said it was a sneeze. I don’t even know if illithids do actually sneeze. Anyhow, the fact is that he’s barmy and very psionic, and very rich. He demands to be treated like a king, and he can afford it, so we cope. He wears all the newest clothing, and his cell – which is actually 3 cells with their walls knocked through—is a small palace. Only because he pays for it, of coarse.
Again, I walked down a hall in the ward, past all the screaming barmies, holding a silver platter of breakfast for Mr. Pickling. It had living fish on it, or rather, fish as alive as they can be out of water. The halls of the barmy wards extend as far as the eye can see, endless corridors of grey madness. Most cells are barred, some—the especially loud inmates—are behind closed doors, where they kick at them all day. The place is odd to walk down… the grime on the floor and the very breath of insanity on your collar. And that doesn’t include the clawing hands hanging out trying to get a handful of fish.
I neared his cell—one behind a door—and everything got a bit quieter. The barmies on that hall knew to keep quiet when Mr. Pickling was mad, and he was raving by now… his food was hours late. I knocked on his door, the way he liked, and I heard something from behind, muffled, that sounded a bit like “if you’re so late, there’s no need to knock.”
I stepped inside, and a rush of his crazy smelling incense filled up my head. I got a bit dizzy, but before I could fall over, he started up…
“Shu. It figures. Where in the multiverse have you been these past 3 hours? I’m bloody starving! Do you know what I can do to you? I’ll scoop your bloody brains out and that’s what I’ll get served in the morning for the next week! Now stop gawking and give me my bloody fish!”
“Here you go Mr. Pickling.” I gave him the platter, and he used his tentacles to shovel the fish into his mouth. “How are you today?”
“Ahh, I’m all right. Except I was a bit hungry before, you know how that is. Awful service here, you know… and it seams no one ever walks down the halls around here anymore.”
“Hmm, that’s odd, I’ll look into that for you.” We sat for another moment, until he started back up,
“Bleck, what is this you’re trying to feed me? Awful! Bloody disgusting! This isn’t Arborean is it? It tastes like Elysium!” He spit out a few bones.
“Arborean through and through, I’m sorry you don’t like it.”
“I bloody don’t! It tastes like a dead rat more than a dead fish!”
“Speaking of rats, I heard there’s a few around here these days. Did you notice any?”
“One skittered outside the door the other day, other than that though, I didn’t see any to speak of.”
“Ahh, that’s good to hear. Are you done eating?”
“Yes, it was lovely, thank you,” and with that, he handed me back the tray with all the bones picked completely clean, and all stacked nicely.
“Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ll tell the cook so, and I’ll make sure he sends it a bit early tomorrow. And, I’ll make sure some new folks walk around outside for you.”
“Right, please do. Good evening, Mr. Shu.” He bowed, and then sat down to meditate. I walked out with the tray.
I walked back down the hall, an empty plate of bones on my shoulder, and I remembered why the new Bleakers were so afraid of Mr. Pickling… but then again, all it takes with him is a quick change of the subject.
Time for a bit of lunch myself then, it being Peak. I usually go out for a bit to one of the soup kitchens, to see if I can help, but today I decided to eat on the Green, a part of the Gardens where the barmies (by barmies, I mean the more incompetent Bleakers, as opposed to the inmates) congregate for lunch and for games and such. There weren’t all that many today out on the lawn, Bleakers that is, but there were still enough to depress a cutter. They could be out helping people. Sure enough too, there sat young Milton, the same boy who sent me to bring Mr. Pickling his food.
“Well, young Milton, fancy finding you here. Didn’t I send you to the Cold Bowl just a few hours ago?”
He turned and gave me a look, his eyes glazed over from thought, and what looked like depression. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He was a skinny human, probably only twenty years of age. He had the fire of youth in his eyes, with the trace of the despair of someone who’s met a world far from their own, knowing they don’t know how to survive there.
“D’you ever look at the flowers, Mr. Shu?” He returned to staring at the flower bed. The bed was of Stygian Prisms, dark green flowers with transparent black flowers that grow near the Styx—obviously enough—on Baator’s sixth. Rare things, and awfully beautiful.
“Er. I’m the gardener Milton. Anyway, I need you to…”
“No no, look at the flowers.”
“You’re a bit young to be looking at flowers like that Milton. Come on then, let’s go inside.”
“No, I’m fine. I’ve got plenty of sane years ahead of me, if that’s what you mean Mr. Shu. It’s just that I pity these flowers. They sit there all day looking at the same thing day in and out, and the occasional wasp flies by and ravages them. Pitiful, eh?”
“Not really. They probably dream nicely. Take the Behemoth. Imagine the stuff that runs through its head? It doesn’t go anywhere at all, and sits in the same spot looking at the insides of its eyelids day in and out, while Hivers make their kips up against it’s sides, and even in its mouth.”
“Symbiotic relationship you see. The bees ravage the flowers, but the flowers don’t seem to care, do they? And, you might notice, if you take away the bees there’d be fewer flowers. I’m not saying if you’d take away the Hivers there’d be less Behemoth, but you know what I mean. I thought the same thing once looking at the Prisms.”
“Mr. Shu, you’re a good cutter.” He stood up an enlightened man, and walked inside for a bowl of porridge.
Milton’d make a good Bleaker if only he didn’t try so hard. It’s like he wants to go barmy. Typical prime, he’ll do anything to fit in. Ahh well, at least he’s trying. And, he did pick my nicest flowers to ponder, so that’s a mark in his favour.
One Hour after Peak
After getting Milton busy mopping in the Cafeteria, I decided to go to the Bowl myself and have a look around at things. They’d be in need of help most likely… the main lunch hour past, and no one sent to clean up. Cleaning up for other people is another of my duties as the House’s esteemed Groundskeeper.
It’s a little red brick shack, the Bowl, a one story affair with a low ceiling and a perpetually leaking roof. It could only hold about twenty people on the inside, but its front is happily situated on the commons of Ragpicker’s Square, outside of the Mortuary, where there’s space for any sod to eat his food. A rather grim little place manned by a bariaur couple, the Bowl’s customers usually end up across the Square in a matter of weeks or months.
I stepped inside, and was assaulted by the odours normally associated with soup kitchens anywhere… namely, the stench of the people. There was a small helping of vomit and alcohol in the air as well, evidenced by the drunken, unconscious heap of rags and dirt in the corner. Behind the counter stood the bariaur Nari. Given her job, she and her husband remained quite full of vigour. They didn’t get very depressed, as they preferred to think of what they did instead of what they didn’t.
“Mr. Shu! It’s a pleasure, as always!” Always smiling, even in the worst of times…
“Hello, Nari. What’ve you got for me today?”
“Well, there’s that sod in the corner. You might bring him back to the Gatehouse for a bit of treatment, but mopping up isn’t necessary. We’ve got a couple of sods from the cafeteria coming up in a few minutes for that. As well, my husband got this for you.” She handed me a flower bulb, rapped carefully in an old newspaper full of dirt.
“An Astral Violet? How lovely, thank you, Nari. That’s very good of you and your husband to do this for me,” Astral Violets are the huge, purple flowers that grow on the husks of Dead Gods… very, very rarely it’s possible to transplant them to somewhere as equally inhospitable to plant life – namely, Sigil. “Are you sure there’s nothing else I can do for you other than deal with that bugger?”
“Well…” she pulled back her cloak and showed me a baby. “You can find this one a home.” It’s always the kids who get me. This one was quite dirty and thin, it looked as though it had been living in the streets for some weeks.
“I’ll take him to the Gatehouse. Have you named him yet?”
“No, not yet. We didn’t think it’d be right.”
“Right, another Baby Lhar then. You’re good people Nari, you and your husband.” Baby Lhar is a term like Johnny Sigilian—it’s used to refer to a baby we pick up without a name.
“Thank you Pekan. Good luck,” a customary good-bye with Bleakers is ‘Good Luck’. Based on the fact that we don’t last too long with our jobs, as taxing as they are on the mind, good luck is appropriate.
I put the baby under my own cape, and kept him in place with a sling I keep for just such occasions, and grabbed the drunk from the corner. With one over my shoulder and one over my heart, I walked back to the Gatehouse.
Two and a Quarter Hours after Peak
I took the Violet and planted it. They don’t keep very long outside of the ground… like people without care, a bulb gets dirty, then thin, then it dies. I brought the baby inside, where he immediately got a bowl full of something to keep his stomach at ease and a good scrubbing. The drunk, on the other hand, came back to his senses somewhere on the way back down to the Gatehouse. It was an interesting state of affairs.
“Ar… what… hey! Whereyertakinmebuggritputmedown!” he began kicking and flailing about, but like most drunks in his situation, couldn’t do much for himself.
“Keep your mouth shut. You were in the Cold Bowl, you fell unconscious, and now you’re going to the Gatehouse to get cleaned up.” Actually, what my idea was was to Put Him In The System…
“I baien’t goin’! Put me down!” he was a lot smaller than me. Thin from hunger and rather short, and sodding drunk. He was what some of the bubbers in the Gatehouse call a lightweight, a really thin sod who can’t take his liquor.
“You’re definitely going.”
“No I baien’t! My kids’s waitin!”
“Yeah! They’s gettin dey’r dear pop a good bit of rum, they is!”
“You’re coming with me.”
Ask a Bleaker for help and you’ll be sure to get it. Make sure you deserve it though, or they’ll Put You In The System. That sod got put in. For the rest of his miserable life, he’ll be sweeping kitchens, cleaning cells, pulling weeds, and doing other menial tasks for a very small pay. Enough only to get a bowl of porridge. He could always not do his duties, but that’d be grounds for us to pull the Hardheads in on him. It’s his duty to pay us back for the good we’ve done for him.
Technically, we can do this to anyone. It’s a little known (and ninety-nine percent of the time overlooked) law that whenever we do something for someone, we can force them to help us out back. In extreme cases, if they don’t, they end up in the Prison. Usually, they just get a severe beating from a bunch of overzealous Hardheads and told to obey. It suits the law boys all fine, as justice gets extracted on people who definitely deserve it.
This sod, making his kids get him alcohol and the powers know what else, will be delivering Mr. Pickling’s breakfast for the next few months.
Three Hours After Peak
Then there’s the barmies. I pull weeds, I work at soup kitchens, but the barmies… they’re the strangest part of my job. You might say I have to keep them in order. I’m not allowed to let them rip each other to pieces, I have to keep them happy with their present situations. Pampering you might call it, I think it’s more like baby-sitting. You just have to keep an eye on them, as they usually behave when they think they’re being watched. This only applies to, of course, safe barmies… the ones we let out into the Gardens who aren’t dangerous.
There are two in particular, Smoat and Merj. Smoat is a little bleached gnome, his mind constantly curling back in on itself in barmy turns of loopy genius. Once a powerful psionicist, he supposedly outthought himself when asked whether the powers or the multiverse came first. His thought is occupied like a moigno’s, in its eternal search for pi, for the solution to which was actually there to begin with. Merj is a rilmani, completely mute. He sits and stares, and projects his thoughts into Smoat’s mind. Smoat projects back sometimes, usually by shouting. Today, they decided to play chess… an event the rest of the garden barmies usually like watching. Last time, Smoat was convinced Merj wanted to juggle turnips with him. The site of the rilmani staring, unblinking, as the gnome pelted him with turnips shouting “Why don’t yez through them back?!” was something to behold.
Smoat sat down at one side of the giant marble chessboard that sits in the Garden’s centre. Some Bleakers, who fancy themselves ‘loths, sometimes play with it and its giant pieces. Smoat nudged Merj into his seat, and they stared at each other.
It is said that Merj’s mind broke off into the silent heap of madness that is his present state when he witnessed a sod climbing the Spire. It looked to him like the bugger kept getting higher, but to the climber, it didn’t look like he was getting anywhere. This paradox crushed his mind, for to him, it looked like it was very probable the man’d reach Sigil. Unfortunately for the man, when Merj’s mind and attention (Merj’s belief in the fact that the climber was getting higher was what was causing the climber to get there) broke, his progress did too, and reality realigned itself so that he fell from grace… with a rather large thump.
Smoat moved his Queen’s Pawn, a standard opening move, and the rilmani proceeded to stare at the chessboard. Their games are so legendary in the Gatehouse, partially in the fact that they’re so beautifully balanced the whole way through—hardly any pieces ever get taken—and in the fact that Merj is usually hours between moves. He stares at the board, and plays out the entire game in his mind, before Smoat grabs a piece and moves it for him. They usually end in a stalemate, their games that don’t end with Smoat wandering off to do something else, while Merj continues to stare.
It’s that sort of barmy that keep a cutter sane in this world.
Four and a Half Hours After Peak
Then there are the other barmies. Prowling the inside of the Gatehouse with the rest of its normal staff and tending to the inmates is another integral part of my day. Unlike the healthy barmies, who’re just missing a few apples from the bushel, the ones we keep inside are completely done with all normal sense. There’s the murderous ones, in the Criminally Insane wing, where all the buggers think about is raping and killing. It’s advisable to not go in the place without at least a little bit of padding in your clothes and a large enough weapon to beat them off with, if they’re in an offensive mood. I usually prowl the Irretrievably Insane ward, or the Mad Bleaker ward. I feel more at home with the barmies there, which though they aren’t safe, are more in my league. That’s where I’ll end up, eventually, so I figure I may as well get used to the place.
Wandering the Irretrievable Ward is today’s task, it’s always something there. Either a barmy wants to chat a bit (and we’re obliged to listen in the Irretrievable Ward… we’re only allowed to let them scream in the Criminal and Mad Bleaker wards) about something on his spiralled, permanently crooked mind, there’s a mess to clean, there’s a bed to make, there’s a corpse to get rid of, or anything like that. The Irretrievables hold a special place in my heart, victims of meaningless tragedy or coincidence. Unlike the Mad Bleakers, who go barmy trying to stop the multiverse from smashing its pointlessness into others, or the Criminally Insane, masochistic bastards who usually bring it on themselves, the Irretrievables get here from seeing the Criminally Insane slaughter their uncles or the Mad Bleakers trying to clean the streets. They’re the innocent bystanders of the lot, the sods who get what’s coming, even if it’s not coming to them.
“Please Mr. Shu! In here! They’re coming again! I hear the feet, stomping! Stomping!”
I stepped into the cell, an off-white room lit by small windows in the wall, each covered in a very fine steel mesh. Nothing could ever hope to get in or out save the air and the light. These windows are only put in the rooms of people like this, the people no-one care about. The criminals sit in darkness, or in candlelight if they care to buy it. A soft carpet covered the whole floor, nailed in place by ancient steel spikes, and the walls were covered in a soft rubber paint and overlaid with a layer of cotton, so sods bashing their heads off them can’t do much damage. Comfortable little places that’re warm in the cold and cool in extreme heat, the barmies have better housing than most of Sigil’s middle class. A small hole led down into a deep iron pipe in the corner, the barmy’s personal privy. An empty, tin food tray was sitting next to the slot in the door from which it came, holding a pile of crumbs and the crusts from a sandwich.
“No one is coming, my friend,” Every barmy knows me, but I’m afraid my memory isn’t so good. I pulled up a stool and sat beside him. Two stools sit in the room’s corner – both riveted to the floor, so an excited barmy doesn’t stack them up and jump off or some such. The wretched figure before me was huddled in the corner, with a blue (Gatehouse issued) shirt pulled up over his head, trying to block out whatever it was he was hearing. A very sorry looking human, with the yellowish glow to his skin common in Outlanders, he looked up as I spoke with deep sadness in his greenish eyes.
He whimpered a little bit and pulled his shirt closer up over his head. They didn’t have to wear straight jackets unless they attacked us, or unless we perceived them as a threat. Even then, there are the exceptions – the barmies so barmy they don’t need them. For example, Pickling. “I hear them though,” he said, throw a choked sob.
“Now, now. Who do you hear?” I said in a soothing tone. Soothing tones are something they teach to all Bleakers who’re going to work in or around the Gatehouse, they’re a necessity. Making a barmy feel all warm and cozy with his surroundings is the best way to calm him down, we’re taught. I believe that entirely.
“The Modrons! They’re marching outside! I hear them!” He screamed out, tears pouring from his eyes.
I stood up and looked out the window. “No, if you’ll look, that’s just Smoat stomping around the Gardens. You know Smoat, little gnome, always playing chess with that rilmani?” Of coarse, he did know him. Even though the barmies stay walled up all day in the soft comfort of their cells, they looked out their windows from time to time and learned faces. They heard stories from the others as well, and Smoat lived just down the corridor.
He nodded slightly through his tears, and gave a reluctant smile. He slowly composed himself, “Yes, he must be losing to be stomping around so hard.”
I patted him on the shoulder reassuringly and smiled, “He never wins. The rilmani always makes it look like he is, but he can never quite do it.”
He smiled back and said, “Ya, bloody rilmani,” he sniffed, “They’re never there when you need them.” His eyes took on a very introverted look as he wiped the last tear from his cheek.
I stood up and left him to ponder his madness. It’s usually best to leave without saying anything, lest you excite them. If they don’t notice you leaving, a lot of times they won’t remember you even coming in. The poor sod. Probably had his village trampled in the last march, while the rilmani watched…
At least he’s quiet now, that’s my job. To keep them quiet. To make them forget for the moment, that’s what they say to do. Unfortunately, they don’t so much forget as they do stop thinking out loud. The introverted look a barmy gives when he puts his chin on his knees is the one he gives before he once again contemplates his situation… a great downward spiral. When they hit the bottom, and the source of their madness, their reality sets in even more overwhelmingly. Eventually, they die from the mental stress or rarely of suicide. Some struggle for upwards of fifty and even one hundred years before giving in to the next reality… wherever it is, if ever it is.
Six Hours after Peak
Dinner time in the Gatehouse comes at the eighteenth hour of the day, promptly. It’s one of those things a cutter can count on, if he’s barmy and in a cell, that his meal will be hot and in his room at promptly six hours before Antipeak. Usually, the meals aren’t that good (the service is stressed a bit more than the food – the average barmy cares more about getting served than what’s on the platter), but they’re both nutritious and edible. And, though it’s a bit redundant of me, a barmy doesn’t really care what he’s eating. Usually. Of coarse, we make up nicer dinners for the ex-Factols and Mad Bleakers (though a few of the poor ex-Factols’ve passed away recently… I believe there was an article on it in SIGIS), but there’s a bit of confusion sometimes and a really lucky barmy’ll end up eating from a silver platter, while an ex-Factol gets more depressed at his lack of special treatment.
I got stuck doing the sods in the Criminally Insane ward tonight.
The Criminally Insane ward is unique. While the Mad Bleakers get crushed by trying to stop oppression, and the Irretrievables by being the innocent bystanders, the Criminally Insane is the place the people who are too barmy for even the Wyrm to eat. The Red Death doesn’t want anything to do with them… one once said to me, and I believe this sums up the reason we have a Criminally Insane ward best (along with saying a lot about the Death):
“If they don’t understand why they’re getting their justice, they’re under your wing. We don’t have the time to waste on barmies.”
The Criminally Insane are the sods that are so twisted the Mercykillers don’t even want to punish them. Serial killers who get caught, and are found to have had their minds psionically destroyed. Rapists who confront their victims later, and then feel regret—but go and do it again anyway. The really twisted ones. They get sent to us straight from the Prison, after it’s decided they’re barmy. Their cells are damp, dirty, and they usually get chains. There are no windows in there, either, and the bars on the door provide a gap only big enough to permit the entrance of a bowl of cold chowder. We don’t like having them around as much as the Mercykillers—but they’re barmy, so they’re ours.
And like the other barmies, they all know me…
“Hey, Shu, out doing good again, eh?”
“Hah… there goes ol’ Pekan. The world looks like it was awfully mean to him today.”
“What happened Shu, another kid get beaten? Drugged?”
“Ya… that’s right… reminds you of your grandson, don’t it Shu?”
“Wanna know what I did to him, Pekan?”
“Ya… tell him…”
“I dunno if he remembers. S’right, Shu! It was me! I did him in, the little Zerth lover!”
“S’right, yellow man! It was us!”
“And… you can’t do anything about it!”
A hall full of Criminals didn’t eat this evening—for once, one of the Gatehouse’s constants was broken. I pity the sods who have to guard the hungry buggers tonight.
I hurried back to the gardens, past all of the barmy killers screaming for their food, and wept.
Five and a Half Hours Before Antipeak
If only for the educational value of it, and the point of seeing why I am a Bleaker, I will relate the story of my grandson.
He was a little gith, only about seven, when he came to live with me in Sigil. I worked for the soup kitchens in my spare time, as some way to give back, but I was a weapon smith before that, and a great knight even before that. I am very old, as may be guessed. A tiefling, came in my shop one day, and bought a nice sword. He paid me extra, winked at my grandson (whose parents had died on Limbo—taken by the slaadi), and left. He was a good looking sod, dark tan, jet black hair and eyes, and the drawn, handsome features of an accomplished Blood Warrior. He had the smile of a tanar’ri.
My grandson went out to play a bit later on that day… the next I saw him, three days later, he was in pieces in a box, in a warehouse in the Hive, with the sword I’d made sticking in what were his remains. Tools of torture were strewn about the room—I don’t even allow myself to think what that bastard did to my own grandson.
They never caught him.
I joined the Cabal shortly afterwards… and have been here for a long time. But I haven’t forgotten, and neither has the Criminally Insane ward.
Four Hours Before Antipeak
After going back into the Gatehouse to help clean up, I came back out to the Gardens again. A shipment of manure was about to arrive, so I thought waiting for it might be good. The sod who runs the company I buy from, a cambion named Marcus Carfax, charges hourly. If you aren’t there when he arrives, he’ll usually claim (beyond all logic) that he’s been there all day and that people have just been ignoring him. It works pretty well—when I’m not around, he can usually trick new Bleakers into giving him a day’s worth of extra wages.
He wasn’t there yet, so I wandered over to the chess game, which was still going strong. Smoat was arguing with himself, and Merj was staring at his King’s Rook… it was intense.
Merj was still maintaining his beautiful, silent stalemate with Smoat. Not a pawn had yet been taken, as such would ruin the beautiful balance of the game. Smoat was always worried that destroying the balance would anger his silent friend, who would then quit and find something else to do. Merj always played this to his advantage (apparently), by doing the same. He would manage to checkmate Smoat in the most beautifully subtle ways. While it’s hard to imagine Merj actually playing – the normal bystander would assume that a barmy gnome was just playing chess with himself, while a very bored rilmani watched—the way the games would end could be called artistic. It’s said that viewed from above, one of the longer games ended in a checkmate with the pieces arranged to form a picture of her serenity, the Lady. That’s tough to arrange, when you’re a barmy gnome with the pieces some thirty pounds heavier than you and a foot taller. Merj is there, thinking… but who knows. Maybe Smoat is just a barmy artist, the powers know there’s tons of them.
Carfax arrived shortly, with his big wagon full of stench kow manure… and by the powers, it did stink.
“Ahh, Pekan, I got here four hours ago. Where were you?” He tried.
“I’ve been here the whole time, Marcus. I saw you get here a minute ago.”
“I get paid by the minute, you know.”
“Sod off. You have the three hundred pounds I ordered, right?”
“I thought I was selling you manure? My little runners are off selling it now, I thought you cancelled that order…”
“What are you talking about? What runners?”
“Oh, just a bunch of gith kids I have selling those mushrooms. You know, you ordered them and then cancelled, right? Er…”
“You have got to be kidding me, Marcus. Unload the manure.”
“You can make good cigarettes out of this manure…”
I fumed for several minutes while he unloaded his cart. It figured, fiends don’t sell dirt to the Gatehouse. It’s always a front for something. It’s always a big plot. But why is it always these kinds of plots? Why does the ghost of my dead grandson have to constantly be dredged up from the grave to haunt me? Why can’t this happen to other people? Why me?
I’m afraid I might end up in the Mad Bleaker’s wing sooner than later…
He finished unloading his cart. “I already paid, Carfax.”
“You did? Oh, yes, right. I recall. Will that be it?”
“Yes. Same order for next month.”
“Right you are, Mr. Shu. You seem a bit… well, depressed. What’s wrong?” For how big a bastard he is, Marcus Carfax never fails to be the happiest bugger in the multiverse when he’s taking someone else’s money for something as worthless as manure. For all he cared, he was getting money for bringing some waste products from a very dirty animal from point A to point B – a rather easy task.
“Nothing. Don’t worry yourself over me… you still have a few long years of taking my money ahead of you.”
He grinned and got back on his cart. “Good evening, Pekan. I hope you feel better next month.”
I hope I’m still thinking straight next month…
Three Hours Before Antipeak
I spent the next hour spreading one of the smelliest substances known to the multiverse across the gardens. Screams from the barmies with windows, gasps from people in the gardens, and inquiries of what the horrible smell was from people on the street interrupted the process. My olfactory sense is mercifully dead. Working with what I do, I can only imagine what things smell like—but that usually has the desired (or undesired) affect. I can smell in my mind what the manure smells like, just as well as I can smell any of my flowers. Unfortunately, the others can smell the manure for real, and it doesn’t please them. Normally, the shipment comes later at night, when everyone is in bed, but it had to come early tonight for some reason or another.
I took the Astral Violet that was in my pocket all day, in its safe wrapping, and planted it deeply. They’re the most gnarled, ugly bulbs. You can probably cut someone with one, if you scraped it across their face. The bulbs die almost instantly in the air, and have to be packaged in the membrane lining of a brain mole’s stomach. They grow to be very large flowers—their stems get up to three inches thick, and their flowers range in light blue to dark purple in colour—each with a diameter of up to two feet. They’re fantastically beautiful, and as I mentioned earlier, extremely rare.
The light boys’ staffs began to glow out in the foggy nighttime of Sigil. Smoke clogged the air more so than usual, and the fog made it so bad as it was impossible to see even the cafeteria just across Bedlam Run. A horrid night. Mornings after these are usually busy ones – the Knights of the Post usually take advantage of such weather to take tries at their businesses. On nights like this, we close up early.
A chess king hurtled through the air, nearly hitting me.
“Yez’re cheating again, I knows it!”
Merj only stared.
The two barmies quit their game and went back inside the Gatehouse. Curiosity took over, and I climbed up onto one of the Gatehouse walls, and stared at the board… sure enough, a very vague picture of a flower bulb was visible. Where the king should have been lying, if the king were tipped on its side in the normal fashion of defeat, was where the flower was sprouting out of its case.
One of them was definitely an artist.
One and a Half Hours before Antipeak
In the Gatehouse, the candles were all being extinguished. With only an hour and a half left in the day, the mandatory bedtime had arrived. The time of day Bleakers hate most. The time of day where the barmies won’t be quiet, when they have to sit in the dark with nothing better to do than scream. I’m thankful I have my shack by the garden.
I stalked up and down the Irretrievable Ward, listening to the whimpers and sobs of the inmates through their doors. Gently telling them that it’s Lights Out, and that I’d be back to turn the lights on in the morning, I blew out the candles one by one. As a mother lays her baby down to rest, I blew out the candles. As she walks out, happy in the knowledge that her child is quiet, I did. With the great frustration and helpless irritation aroused when the baby starts mindlessly screaming, so I gritted my teeth when the barmies started their nightly cacophony.
I looked about, as the Bleakers who still had half a mind went back to their rooms… where they’d be kept up until the morning by the wailing madness. I looked back into the wards, where all the noise came from. I looked out into the street, from which it originated. As I do most nights after Lights Out, I cried. For all of them, that they might find peace, or that I might.
A half Hour before Antipeak
Tollysalmon is out there somewhere. She wasn’t found dead in the cave in a few weeks ago, and her cell was one whose roof fell through. She hasn’t been seen in the Gatehouse for weeks, in fact. It’s a mystery to me, but also a good feeling. To know that she’s out there, surviving, without getting sent back is a good feeling—maybe the barmies can be cured.
Then again, she might just be being barmy somewhere where the Red Death won’t scrag her, like outside of Sigil. The powers know, she’s probably preaching right now—or lying in chains. At least it isn’t here, listening to the screams, without being able to do anything about it. She’s probably happy, or safe in her barminess. I hope one day I might join her, and be free.
- Bedlam Run and the Marble District are both found on the beautiful map of Sigil to be found in: In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil.
- Ex-Factol Tollysalmon is more fully detailed in the Factol’s Manifesto and in Non Compos Mentis.
- The Behemoth can be read about further in Brix’s Guide to Sigil.
- SIGIS is, of course, the Cage’s most reliable and popular newsrag… to be found on no other Mimir but this one [soon].
Source: Tom Bubul